Insecurity, Heartbreak, and the PhD

Oh, it’s delightful to have ambitions. I’m so glad I have such a lot. And there never seems to be any end to them– that’s the best of it. Just as soon as you attain to one ambition you see another one glittering higher up still. It does make life so interesting.

As I am now nearing the end of the first year of my PhD at the University of Cambridge, I’ve allowed myself some time to reflect on everything that has happened this year – probably as a way to not think about everything that I still have to do.
Doing a PhD anywhere is not an easy job (I say job as if I’m getting paid, but you catch my drift). Doing a PhD at Cambridge can add another level of difficulty.

The great thing about working here is that everybody is working on such a high level, and the atmosphere is buzzing with ambition and (academic) creativity. The Faculty and College are here to help you get through this in the best way you can, and people are simply wonderful.

That said, PhD’s are lonely. Because I set up my research myself, I am the one in charge of my progress and my ideas. My supervisor (Professor Maria Nikolajeva – I still cannot believe how lucky I am with that), is absolutely wonderful both in supporting me academically and mentally, but it is simply not her job to do my research for me. Getting started, and knowing what you have to do, is impossible at times. On top of this, as if the project itself isn’t enough for and I am not already feeling guilty all the time for every minute of free time I allow myself (this blog post is a rare luxury, but even now I am listening to a talk on literature and ethics as I write), you are seriously expected to do a lot of extra work.

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Thinking of everything he has to accomplish before winter break, the grad student feels the weight of the world crushing his entire being” Lego Grad Student

Getting a job in academia is not easy. Producing an excellent PhD at the end of your three years is simply not enough for you to secure a position. You need to publish, attract funding (in children’s literature, somehow), go to and organise conferences, do academic book reviews, set up outreach and impact initiatives. All of this work is exciting and interesting, and I want to do all of it.

But I also need to live. I want time for myself where I get to switch off – and how do you switch off when your work is necessarily philosophical in nature, and exists solely in your mind? There are rarely times when I am not mulling about certain problems with my work, rarely days where I fall asleep with ease, rarely days where I do not feel guilty about all the work I haven’t done. Writing is hard, and stressful, and I never feel like I’m working as much as I should. I have been informed that this is a classic Cambridge thing, so at least I’m blending in.

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Doing a PhD affects your life in many ways. I take joy out of my work, and I must admit that at times I marvel at the importance of my work and take great pride in the fact that it hasn’t been done before (hubris alert). I get to meet interesting people working on fascinating projects, I get to live in a beautiful city in a college where people are expressly hired to make sure the students are okay, and I get to dedicate myself to what I find interesting for the last time until I retire.

My life has also become very small. I rarely leave college grounds; the library is here, the faculty next door, and I work either in the library or in my shared kitchen. I do work for college in the library and invigilating exams, and I teach a course or two – at the faculty next door. My closest friends all live in the city, and even then I only really see the ones who live in college.
I moved to this city with plans for my project, but mainly with plans for the after: I was in a loving relationship which would be long-distance for a little while, and the plan was that we would both finish our PhD’s and then try to get a postdoc position in Florida and settle down together, all huisje-boompje-beestje. All of this, all of the “after” of the project, has vanished *poof* into the abyss.

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Catching sight of a junior faculty member in a familiar position, the grad student is chilled by what little change his future could hold” Lego Grad Student

Long-distance is a hard game to play, especially between two PhD students. You see, PhD students, or in fact all Cambridge students as I’ll argue, are odd creatures. We are obsessive about something nobody else really cares about, we hardly talk to anybody else (without talking about work), we drink too much, eat, live and sleep in weird rhythms, and are constantly on edge because of our pressure and drive to perform combined with the necessarily blind nature of our work. For us, it unfortunately proved to be too much.

It’s hard. It’s hard to break ties with someone you loved. It’s hard to let go of your ideas and plans for the future, especially when they were tied to a person that you can no longer be tied to yourself. It’s hard to push yourself beyond feeling, to work. How can you focus on work when it lives in the mind, and the mind is tied to the heart? Especially when this is combined with other personal tragedies (family stuff), it gets hard to keep going. I found my way through, but the way it went was not necessarily something I recommend (read: lots of long late nights with friends, Bojack Horseman, and whiskey). To quote J. K. Rowling (note that this is not me outing myself as a Potterhead, I am a literary scholar after all): numbing the pain for a while will only make it worse when you finally feel it.

In the end, it’s important to know that it will all be fine. I know the way I work, which is very much with high peaks and low valleys of productivity, and I know objectively, my work will be fine. I know the way I love, which is rapidly and completely, and I know that my heart is fine. I know the sun will rise tomorrow, I know my new primary sources will arrive in the mail later this week, I know that I am capable.
And this, I think, is the key to surviving a PhD: know that you will be fine, and have faith in your work. At the end of your three years, you will be the expert in what you are doing – nobody else will be as informed as you are. And if this doesn’t convince you, and you have a bit of a nihilistic streak, also remember that none of it really matters, most people will never hear about it, so why break yourself over it? Do the best that you can, but do it for you. Take breaks when you start to crumble.

Know that you are capable.

A Glorious Return

Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.

Wow, has it really been nearly half a year since I last posted on this blog??
After being so consistent with posting twice a week, I must admit I feel more than slightly embarrassed about being gone for so long, but no worries my friends, I have returned!

Yes, the glorious return of this vaguely literature oriented, vaguely tea oriented blog has finally come, and it’s come with some changes.

The reason of this long stretch of silence essentially boils down to lots of moving house, cross city, cross country, cross continent. Also I worked a lot. I may post about that some time (as one of my jobs was literature related and actually very cool).

Also I started a PhD in children’s literature at the university of Cambridge, which is incredibly time consuming – but also loads of fun!
Now, to keep myself sane and to spend time thinking about my favourite ‘genre’ of literature; children’s literature, in a non-academic setting, the blog is back baby!

Get strapped in for a whole new take on this ride, featuring:

  • Fewer postings!
    I’m lucky enough to now be a very busy woman, and will therefore have to limit my postings. That said, the posts that will come out will be of a more …consistent quality, let’s say, and be less formulaic.
  • Talk/rants about my academic struggles!
    I’ll relate it to children’s literature, I swear.
  • Recipes using tea!
    After thinking about it for, well, half a year, I’ve decided that I do really enjoy the thought of using tea in baking and sharing these experiments with you guys, my lovely readers.

Now I went on a lovely little day trip to Ely a little while ago, and to try and revive this blog slowly I’ve set myself the goal to have that post up by this Monday, so I’ll see you guys then!

Blogging Hiatus

Hi guys!

As you may have noticed, it’s been a while since I posted on the blog and I feel really guilty about it.

I first started writing this blog when I was working full time at a call centre, a job which I hated so much that the small amount of time and energy I had left in a day I spent crying in bed. After chatting with my mum about it, she recommended me to start a blog to talk about the things I am passionate about. From that idea, Tea & Tales was born.

Writing this blog made me excited about reading and writing again, and I was slowly starting to feel better about myself. After I quit my job, the blog was the only bit of stability left for me. Things were looking pretty tough, but I really loved writing regularly and occupying myself with things I actually care about.

Right now, things are finally starting to look up. I got 2 new jobs, another one lined up for the Edinburgh Book Festival, and a PhD position at the University of Cambridge later this year. I have friends, a supportive partner and family, and am very happy! However, I am also very busy. Preparing for my PhD, working 2 jobs and moving house take up a lot of time and unfortunately the blog took the fall..

I know this sounds a bit like a goodbye post, but not to worry! It really isn’t. I love the blog, and even though there’s not a lot of readers I love all of you and would hate to let you down!

This message is merely to let you know that I’m really busy right now, and regular posts won’t be happening for a little while – but I’m definitely still here!

Tinder – and The Big Reveal

Yes, I know the danger of posting this on April the 1st, but dear reader you can trust me in this. (I don’t do April Fool’s!) In the past couple of posts, and on my Instagram (tea.and.tales shameless plug) I have recently been hinting at exciting developments that had an influence on my punctuality and, well…life in general. I couldn’t really talk about it before because it wasn’t official, but now it is and I am free to say that…
I will be pursuing a PhD in Children’s Literature later this year!
I don’t think I need to explain just why this makes me tremble with excitement, and I’ll take a brief moment here to thank my family and my partner for helping me get there.
Thank you.

The subject I will be studying is the impact of war on the reader of children’s literature, and I am absolutely fascinated and excited about it! That’s why, in the hopes of showing you, my dear reader, I will be discussing Tinder by Sally Gardner here today!

Tinder tells the story of Otto Hundebiss (meaning Dogbite), an adolescent boy soldier who tires of war and denies death. After running away from the battlefield he encounters a strange man who offers him shoes and dice, the latter of which will tell him what way to go. Otto is getting stalked by a strange werewolf kind of creature, and seeks shelter in a tree – where he meets a lady. He immediately falls head over heels in love, and after she runs away he makes it his quest to find her. On his way to find her, Otto encounters a magnificent castle with a magical secret..

I really love the writing style in this novel. It feels like a modern Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, both in the language and in its fairytale-esque tropes. The castle and it’s secrets, the themes of transformation and paranoia and uncertainty all tie in together beautifully and with great effect. Otto is greatly damaged by the unnamed war he was in – as, indeed, the world seems to be also. Otto and everyone he encounters is terrified of a beast stalking them, which nobody else can see. Many have died, and fear rules the land. Nobody trusts anybody anymore, and when Otto enters a new city he is shunned and ostracised. You are left to wonder how much of what is happening is real, and how much of it is in Otto’s head – a feeling which is only emphasised at the end.
The war is always looming on the background, and the lack of affirmed reality mark this story for me as a depiction of a young mind marked by the horrors of war. Otto is forever changed by his experiences on the battlefront, but they are not on the foreground of the story.

This story is dark, intriguing, and reminds me of old fashioned fairytales with a dark twist, a la Through the Woods. Because of that, it goes well with Jing Tea’s Bohea Lapsang. It’s smoky, and reminiscent of a pine forest (a big part of the setting, actually!)

I know this is a short post, but I really want to keep the mystery of the story alive for you readers. This tale has so many layers and reads like a deep character study underneath the surface rescue story. Together with the Bohea Lapsang this read is quite the experience that I highly recommend!

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To the Road Ahead

So here we stand, at the eve of a new year. With all its promises and uncertainties.

I have taken some time off from the blog and will be back in action in the new year. And just in case you were worried that I’d somehow fallen off of the giant turtle’s earth disc, I’ve got photo evidence of my travels these past weeks:

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As I seem to have found myself in love with a German, I’ve been seeing friends and family in that area as well as home. Lots of Christmas markets were involved. Probably the cutest and prettiest of them all was Sint Nikolaus Dorf in Köln.

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There was maybe a bit too much food and Glühwein involved, and we had an absolutely lovely time.
We also visited a monastery called Mariawald, known for its delicious pea soup.

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It is also very pretty!

We also visited my friends and family in the Netherlands, and we’re only flying back home next week. I will be starting with the tea room reviews again on the 11th of January. Book reviews start again next Friday, when I’ll be starting my first series review: the Ender’s Game quartet by Orson Scott Card. In honour of the new Star Wars movie (have you seen it? You should) January will be sci-fi month.

After sci-fi month I’ll review Diana Wynne Jones’s Chrestomanci series. Because I love it.

2016 will be the year I dedicate to the things I love and I will take you, the reader, with me. Because happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting a few drops on yourself.

So thank you for reading, and here’s to the road ahead!

Happy 2016!

The First Step

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

This is a fresh start, a new leaf.

Like a fairy tale hero, I have found that to be happy I need to go home. I need to turn back to the books and stories I loved, and welcome the new ones that gathered in my absence with open arms. But to return, I will have to go on a journey. One that I hope you will join me for.

Every week I will look at a new book or story and write my thoughts and feelings on this blog. I will look at classics and new books, adventure books, school stories, romances, YA – I will read it all.
And what is a good book without a nice cup of tea? The right tea brings out the flavour of a book, and I will hunt down the best matches for each text I discuss, to share with you here!

Because children’s books are so much more than “just” entertainment. They are your friends, your family. They move you, make you cry and laugh. They introduce you to whole new worlds. They take you on journeys, to roads you could never imagine before but are suddenly a logical and fundamental part of you.

So I will not keep my feet.

I want to see where I will be swept off to.

Join me, will you?